Backpacking Southeast Asia First Stop: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Two months ago I went on a six-week backpacking trip in Indochina (excluding Peninsular Malaysia). When I started the trip, I posted in my Instagram account @tnadeperalta that I will try to live on a US$ 20 per day budget. My brother was able to do that when he went on a similar trip last year. It was easier for him though because he used Couchsurfing in most places that he went to so he didn’t spend much on accommodations. In this post, I’ll be sharing with you the things I did and my expenses on my first stop, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam.

I flew there from Manila, Philippines through Cebu Pacific. I didn’t plan much for my trip. Weeks before leaving Manila, I was super busy that I didn’t have time to prepare an itinerary. (Or maybe I was just making an excuse. I think I really had no plans of preparing an itinerary because I wanted to decide what to do once I got there). I planned though to spend only two days in Vietnam because I wanted to spend my birthday in another country. Last year I spent my birthday in Vietnam. I wanted to spend it in a different country this year.

Day 0: Flight to HCMC

My flight to HCMC left Manila at 10:20 PM. I arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport at 12:25 AM. I only had a carry-on bag so after passing the immigration I looked for a money changer to change my US dollars to Vietnamese Dong. Then I bought a sim card so that I’ll be connected to the internet all the time. Afterward, I booked a Grab car to City Poshtel, the hostel where I stayed at in HCMC.

The capsule-style bed at City Poshtel. Perfect for people who do not require expensive large/expensive room but wants privacy.

Day 1: City Tour

For my first day, I went out of the hostel around 10 in the morning. I wasn’t rushing because I wasn’t following an itinerary. But I had to wake up before 10:00 AM because the free breakfast at the hostel (yup, there is free breakfast) is only until 10:00 AM.

I wanted to do the Mekong Delta tour the following day so the first thing I did when I went out was to look for a booking office. There is one that I found near my hostel. I also wanted to do the Cu Chi Tunnel Tour. Unfortunately, because I went out late, I won’t have enough time to check out some of the attractions in the city if I did the tour.

The city tour in HCMC usually consists of Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Central Post Office, Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Thien Hau and Quan Am pagodas and Ben Thanh market. Travel agencies offer this half-day tour for VND 120,000. I, however, did this tour on my own, by walking.

From the hostel, I set my GoogleMaps to Notre Dame Cathedral. On my way, a few tuk-tuk drivers followed me offering me a tour. I declined but one guy was persistent. I wanted to avoid him so I went in a different direction and then I got lost. But it led me to my first stop, the Huyen Sy Church. The following are the places I visited on my first day:

Huyen Sy Church

Established in 1859, it is the oldest and second-largest Catholic Church in HCMC. It was built in the Gothic style of many European cathedrals. The church was named after Huyen Sy, the grandfather of Queen Nam Phuong, the wife of Vietnam’s last king.

From Huyen Sy Church, I wanted to visit the Reunification Palace. But upon checking, I found out that it is closed between 11:00 AM and 1:00 PM. So I decided to go to the post office first. But before going to the post office, I first had lunch at a local restaurant near the post office.

Saigon Central Post Office

Saigon Central Post Office is a monumental central post office in Ho Chi Minh City. A beautifully preserved remnant of French colonial times, it was constructed between 1886-1891. It is located next to Notre Dame Cathedral. It is open daily and it’s opening hours are 7:00 AM – 7:00 PM from Monday to Friday and 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays.

There are shops inside the post office selling souvenirs and postcards. I bought two postcards which I sent for me and the other for my Gerald*. It had been my practice that instead of buying keychains or ref magnets as a souvenir from the places I visit, I send myself a postcard instead.

*Gerald is the Filipino actor who played the lead role in the movie Between Maybes. The movie is about Hazel (played by Julia), a formerly famous child actress who books a random flight to Japan after having a fight with her mom. There, she meets a fellow Filipino named Louie (played by Gerald), a waiter at a local seafood restaurant. Hazel asks Louie to check up on her every now and then, just to make sure she is still alive (because she went on the trip without telling anyone about it). When I went on my trip, I had two Geralds, my friend Hanna and Andreu. The postcard recipient is Andreu.

Notre Dame Cathedral

One of Ho Chi Minh’s most prominent attractions, it serves as the local population’s religious institution. It was built in the late 1880s by French colonists. The church is open daily from 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM. But when I visited, it was under renovation so I wasn’t able to get inside the church.

The Reunification Palace is about 5-10 minutes walk from the cathedral. But because I was walking midday and during that time it was really hot, I decided to have iced coffee first. Good thing there is Highlands Coffee near the palace. I’m not a coffee drinker but someone talked me into trying the Vietnamese coffee so I gave it a try. It actually tastes good. But I find it too strong and kept me awake until 1:00 AM.

Reunification Palace/Independence Palace

Tanks on the grounds of Reunification Palace

The palace served as the former residence of the president of South Vietnam until the end of the war in April 1975. It has been the scene of many of the most important events in Vietnam’s history. The palace has five levels, with tunnels, war room, and telecommunications center at the basement. It also has lush gardens and two of the original tanks used in the capture of the palace can be seen parked in the grounds. It is open daily from 7:30 AM – 11:00 AM and 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM. The entrance fee is VND 40,000.

War Remnants Museum

It is a war museum that contains exhibits relating to the Vietnam War and the First Indochina War involving the French colonialists. It is endowed with 9 permanent thematic exhibitions on the evidence of the crime and the consequences of the war that the invasion force has caused to Vietnam. On display outside are US armored vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs, and infantry weapons. To be honest, I got bored while checking out some exhibits but the War Crimes Exhibit caught my attention. The pictures on display are heartbreaking. I felt sorry for the people who had to suffer because of the war. I highly recommend visiting this museum if you want to learn about the history of Vietnam.  It is open daily from 7:30 AM – 6:00 PM. The entrance fee is VND 40,000.

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Today I went on a walking tour around Ho Chi Minh. Visited Huyen Si Church, Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon, Saigon Central Post Office and the Reunification Palace. After the Palace, I was having second thoughts of visiting the War Remnants Museum. I asked my brother if it is worth visiting. He said that I should check it out to learn about history of Vietnam. On display outside are US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons. The museum is endowed with 9 permanent thematic exhibitions. I checked each exhibition one by one and was getting bored until I got to the War Crimes Exhibit. The photographs made me really sad I almost cried. This is one of the photos from that exhibit. Super heartbreaking. 😭

A post shared by Tina de Peralta (@tnadeperalta) on

After my visit to the museum, I walked back to my hostel to rest a bit. Then I went out to have dinner at Banh Mi 362. It was drizzling so after having dinner, I went back to my hostel.

Day 2: Mekong Delta Tour

On my second day, I woke up early because I was going on the Mekong Delta Tour. Pick-up time at the travel agency where I booked the tour is 8:00 AM. From HCMC we traveled for two hours to My Tho and visited the Buddhist temple Vinh Trang Pagoda. Afterward, we boarded on a boat to Ben Tre. We visited a coconut candy factory there before boarding on a smaller boat that took us to a restaurant called Nha Hang Sinh Thai Viet Nhat. We had lunch and after lunch, we had a boat cruise on one of the tributaries of Mekong. Then before going back to My Tho, we dropped by Unicorn Island where we sampled Vietnamese honey tea and were treated to the sound of Vietnamese folk music by local musicians. The tour is nine hours long and cost me VND 210,000. After the tour, we were dropped off at Ben Thanh Market.

Me during the boat cruise. They lend you a Vietnamese hat before boarding the rowboat.

Vinh Trang Pagoda

Vinh Trang Pagoda is one of the best-known temples in Mekong Delta region of Southern Vietnam. It features three giant Buddha statues: the standing Buddha that symbolizes ultimate bliss and compassion, the laughing Buddha that symbolizes happiness and good luck, and the reclining Buddha that represents Gautama Buddha before he enters parinirvana, the death of one who has attained nirvana during his lifetime and has been released from the painful cycle of samsara, or rebirth.

The three giant Buddha statues at Vinh Trang Pagoda

Ben Tre Island

Ben Tre is a 20-minute boat ride away from My Tho. On this island, we visited a coconut candy factory. Our guide demonstrated how coconut candies are made. After that, we were shown two jars of snake wine and we were offered free taste but I didn’t try it. Afterward, we were given time to shop for souvenirs before going to Nha Hang Sinh Thai Viet Nhat. We had lunch there and were given about thirty minutes to chill and see the rest of the place before getting on a rowboat for the boat cruise on one of the tributaries of Mekong. After the cruise, we went back to the bigger boat and made our way to Unicorn Island.

Left photo: Would you try this snake wine? Right photo: the workers at the coconut candy factory wrapping the candies.

Unicorn Island

We were given a short talk about honey when we got to Unicorn Island. Afterward, we tried the Vietnamese honey tea. Then we were brought to another place where we were served with seasonal fruits while some local musicians performed Vietnamese folk music for us. The funny thing though is that none of us ate the fruits because we were waiting for our guide to tell us to try them but he never did.

Our guide explaining something about the bees.

Ben Thanh Market

After the tour, we were told that there will only be two drop-off points, the Ben Thanh Market and a hotel in District 1. I decided to alight at Ben Thanh Market because I wasn’t able to check it out the day before. Ben Thanh Market is a large marketplace located in District 1 of HCMC. There are so many things that you can buy in this market- souvenirs, local handicrafts, textiles, clothes, jewelry, and shoes to lacquerware, electronics, and Vietnamese art. You can also buy fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and flowers here. There are also food stalls in the market if you want to try Vietnamese food. It is open from 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM and the night market is open from 6:00 PM – 10:00 PM.

Inside Bent Thanh Market

I checked out the stalls in Ben Thanh Market but didn’t buy anything because I was just starting my trip. I didn’t want to carry too many stuff with me. From Ben Thanh Market, I walked for about 10 minutes to Cafe Apartment. I wanted to check it out because my brother told me it is a nice looking building. I didn’t know that I will see something better. In front of Cafe Apartment is the Ho Chi Minh Square.

Cafe Apartment

Ho Chi Minh Square

Ho Chi Minh Square is located in the middle of District 1. It is a very nice place and many locals hang out in this place. It is surrounded by beautiful French colonial-style buildings. At the far end of the square you will find a statue of Ho Chi Minh, and at the back of the statue is Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee Building (City Hall). This square is a must-visit when in HCMC and the best time to visit it is at dusk. This is actually my favorite place in HCMC.

While I was walking towards the City Hall, I saw people dressed in a superhero costume. There were also mascots. I don’t know if it’s a common thing there. There were also some stalls selling food. I tried the Banh Trang Nuong and I loved it. After spending some time in the square, I walked back to my hostel.

What is this panda doing here? 🐼😂

Expenses

For this backpacking trip, I brought US dollars. I exchanged US$100 at the airport so I will have money to use to buy a sim card. The conversion rate was 2,320,000 VND for US$ 100. I’ll be using the conversion rate of Php 52 for US$ 1 for this post. Using the above rates, US$ 20 is equivalent to VND 464,000.

Day 0:

Grab car fare from the airport to City Poshtel: VND 129,000 (US$ 5.56 / PHP 289.12)

Sim card (for internet use good for 1 month; I used the same sim card when I went to Hanoi): VND 200,000 (US$ 8.62 / PHP 448.24)

1.5 L Water: VND 10,000 (US$ 0.43 / PHP 22.36)

1 bed in a 20-bed female dormitory in City Poshtel: PHP 318.45 (US$ 6.12 / VND 142,078)

Day 0 total expenses: VND 481,078 (US$ 20.73 / PHP 1078.17)


Booking.com

Day 1:

1 bed in a 20-bed female dormitory in City Poshtel: PHP 318.45 (US$ 6.12 / VND 142,078)

Lunch (a bowl of Pho and a bottle of Coke): VND 70,000 (US$ 3.02 / PHP 157.04)

2 Postcards: VND 13,000 (US$ 0.56 / PHP 29.12)

2 Stamps: VND 30,000 (US$ 1.29 / PHP 67.08)

Iced Coffee: VND 35,000 (US$ 1.51 / PHP 78.52)

Reunification Palace entrance fee: VND 40,000 (US$ 1.72 / PHP 89.44)

War Remnants Museum entrance fee: VND 40,000 (US$ 1.72 / PHP 89.44)

Dinner (Banh Mi and a can of Coke): VND 50,000 (US$ 2.16 / PHP 112.32)

Day 1 total expenses: VND 420,078 (US$ 18.10 / PHP 941.41)

Day 2:

1 bed in a 20-bed female dormitory in City Poshtel: PHP 318.45 (US$ 6.12 / VND 142,078)

Mekong Delta Tour (lunch included): VND 210,000 (US$ 9.05 / PHP 470.60)

Snacks: VND 35,000 (US$ 1.51 / PHP 78.52)

Coke during lunch: VND 20,000 (US$ 0.86 / PHP 44.72)

Toilet use fee: VND 3,000 (US$ 0.13 / PHP 6.76)

Donation/tip at Unicorn Island: VND 5,000 (US$ 0.22 / PHP 11.44)

Dinner (Banh Trang Nuong and a bottle of coke): VND 8,000 (US$ 0.34 / PHP 17.68)

Day 2 total expenses: VND 423,078 (US$ 18.23 / PHP 948.17)

Total expenses for 3 days: VND 1,324,234 (US$ 57.06 / PHP 2,967.75)

Other expenses related to this trip:

Airfare from Manila to Ho Chi Minh- Php 619.00 (~US$ 11.90) + 5400 Getgo points

Travel tax- Php 1620.00 (~US$ 31.15)

Grab car fare from Escalades, QC to NAIA Terminal 3: Php 443 (US$ 8.52)

Total: PHP 2,682 (~US$ 51.57)

I passed the challenge in Ho Chi Minh City and even had US$ 2.92 savings. After HCMC, I traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia by bus. Watch out for my next post for the details of my trip to Phnom Penh. If you have any questions regarding this trip, feel free to leave a comment. Subscribe to my blog if you don’t want to miss any of my posts. And please follow my Facebook page @iwentanyways and like my Instagram accounts @iwentanyways and @tnadeperalta for updates. You can also check out my backpacking highlights in my IG @tnadeperalta.

Related post: Traveling to Phnom Penh, Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam by Bus

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